Cover image for Through the unknown, remembered gate : a spiritual journey
Through the unknown, remembered gate : a spiritual journey
Benedek, Emily.
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Publication Information:
New York : Schocken Books, [2001]

Physical Description:
xiii, 335 pages ; 22 cm
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E184.37 .B46 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Emily Benedek, the author of two highly regarded books on the traditions and conflicts of Native Americans of the Southwest, suddenly found herself in the mid-1990s grappling with certain traditions and conflicts of her own. Stricken with a case of temporary blindness, she had an experience-- unprecedented in her life--which she was able to understand only as an apprehension of the divine.

Stirred and confused, Benedek took herself to a humble storefront synagogue in Dallas, where she was then living. Among the welcoming congregants she began a spiritual journey that gradually led her back to Jewish practice and belief.

As we accompany Benedek on her journey, we come to know the wise and imaginative psychoanalyst who served as one of her guides... an Orthodox family in Rockland County whose lives are devoted entirely to Torah yet who are open to Benedek's questioning and probing, particularly on the subject of the differing roles of men and women in Orthodoxy... Texans, Israelis, and Brooklynites, teachers and students, and the vibrant Conservative Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Benedek eventually finds her most comfortable spiritual home.

And ultimately, of course, we come to know Emily Benedek, an independent and principled modern woman who has found a path through T. S. Eliot's "unknown, remembered gate" in the Jewish life and identity that connect her to her rich and powerful heritage. Curious, sensitive, perceptive, and questing, she gives us in this compelling memoir a beautiful story, beautifully told.

Author Notes

Emily Benedek is the author of two previous books, "Beyond the Four Corners of the World" & "The Wind Won't Know Me". Her work has appeared in "The New York Times", "The Washington Post", "Life", "Rolling Stone", "Details", "Harper's Bazaar", "The Utne Reader", & on National Public Radio. She lives in New York City.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

When Benedek (Beyond the Four Corners of the World), a New York Jew living in Dallas, awakened one day to find that she'd lost her ability to see clearly, she interpreted it as a manifestation of spiritual crisis a sign that she'd literally lost sight of what was important. Although her vision returned, Benedek decided to immerse herself in the world of traditional Orthodox Judaism, a world she hoped would set her back on the right course. Since Benedek been long alienated from her Jewish heritage, this immersion created some conflicts in her life, particularly discomfort with Judaism's sometimes limited roles for women, as well as a strange sense of being a visitor to the Jewish community. The intriguing premise of a contemporaneous loss of sight and acquisition of insight enlivens the early chapters of the book, in which Benedek undergoes various medical tests and diagnoses her own spiritual emptiness. But for the most part she simply lists and explains the rituals of her newfound community, making her story seem more like a tour-bus ride than a spiritual journey. Along with Benedek, one learns about keeping Sabbath, why Orthodox women wear wigs and the details of the Passover Seder. Though well wrought from Benedek's simultaneous insider/outsider perspective, these observations may be too basic for a target audience of readers drawn to books about Jewish life and culture. Agent, Kris Dahl, ICM. (Apr. 17) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Benedek, author of two other books, woke up one morning in Dallas, where she was visiting a friend, and found that she had double vision. Six weeks later, after a series of tests, her eyesight returned to normal. "I believe that in naked fear, stripped of all defenses, literally blinded, I had a moment of true sight, of true insight," she posits. "I saw, I believe, my first inklings of the divine." A secular Jew until then, Benedek began a spiritual journey, first enrolling in classes in Jewish mysticism and then attending Saturday services in a synagogue. In 1993 she moved back to New York, in 1994 she visited Israel, and in 1997 she married a Russian Jew in an Orthodox ceremony. Benedek offers readers a brief history of her family, beginning with her great-grandparents, who arrived in the U.S penniless from Lithuania. In this work of extraordinary depth--the title is from a T. S. Eliot poem--Benedek examines the concept of Jewish identity and the links to her past. --George Cohen

Library Journal Review

Benedek (Beyond the Four Corners of the World) relates how temporarily losing clear physical vision allowed her to see spiritual truths and return to Judaism. Opening with the dramatic tale of developing double vision, the author gradually introduces family members and childhood experiences. Two Jewish Community Center classes lead to participation in a synagogue and relationships with many Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews. The author skillfully uses dialog to re-create scenes and reveal such people as the psychoanalyst whose knowledge of literature and respect for Judaism encourage her. Discussions with rabbis and encounters with family members are also vividly presented. Readers will appreciate Benedek's honest presentation of questions and doubts, although some readers may struggle with the transliterated Hebrew terms she uses. Susan Jacoby relates a similar dual trek into family past and Judaism in Half Jew (LJ 3/15/00), while Barbara Kessel offers an equally personal presentation of adults encountering Judaism in Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots (LJ 5/15/00). Recommended for religion collections and large public libraries. Marianne Orme, West Lafayette, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-The author relates how she moved to Texas with high hopes for her new job and live-in boyfriend. Once there, however, her world started to fall apart. Bouts of temporary blindness descended upon her, her boyfriend called it quits, and her promising job went awry. In the midst of all this mess, she found moments of clarity and peace. Past discussions she had had with Navajo and Hopi people played through her mind. Recalling their struggle to find balance between cherished traditions and the modern world, Benedek realized that her personal healing depended on finding her own spiritual traditions and melding them with a modern life. She found an excellent psychoanalyst who helped her. As their sessions came to a close, he showed her a page from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets that captured the essence of the journey she was beginning and provided inspiration for her book's title. A Jewish woman brought up in a largely secular household, Benedek began to examine elements of Orthodox life that attracted and repulsed her. Concurrent explorations of her family tree and a journey to Israel yielded interesting memories and pleasant surprises. As she put all the pieces of her inner life together, she found her outer life following suit. Written in a frank yet thoughtful manner, this book illustrates one person's successful struggle to find inner peace. Readers will find solace in seeing that even in the midst of personal hardship it is possible to find the way to one's own spiritual home.-Sheila Shoup, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Blinded The horizon stretches before me, yellow and flat and dry, marked off by run-down cafés, garages, small warehouses. I brake at the intersection that marks the halfway point of my shortcut between Lemmon Avenue and Harry Hines Boulevard. Above me, the traffic light hangs absurdly high; it twists in the breeze, baleful, an omniscient red eye, looking out for trouble. When the light changes, I continue past Judge Roy Bean's Saloon and Sowell's Liquors, inching my car over the railroad tracks. I check left and right; not only do roads meet here from five directions, but the intersection is also complicated by the raised cicatrix of the railroad tracks. As I pass, I catch sight of a train engine on one of the tracks to my left. It appears to be slowly entering the intersection at an oblique angle. I start, but when I look again, I see it is parked, and remains parked, in back of an oddly out of place Chinese take-out restaurant. As I proceed, I have a funny sensation in my eyes, as if the sky ahead of me had hiccuped, the air had given way. I take a sharp left and continue past cheap, one-story offices, a sales lot for truck cabs, a neighborhood of shabby bungalows. Most of the city of Dallas seems immune to zoning of any kind, so gas stations bump up against housing complexes, offices are sandwiched between truck lots. Although Dallas has its share of luxurious and beautiful neighborhoods, many areas lack the slightest aesthetic note. I am headed in the direction of Parkland Hospital, one of two spots in Dallas toward which all roads point, and which still evokes the same images it did when its name and façade were burned into the public consciousness twenty-eight years ago. The other spot, not too far away, the heart of downtown, is the Texas Book Depository, from whose sixth-floor window Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy. Just before Parkland Hospital, as I pass Majors Scientific Bookstore and roll down the slope past a 7-Eleven onto Harry Hines Boulevard, it happens again, a wrinkle, a tremble in my eyes, a crumpling of space. The next morning, I wake up and I cannot see. I run my hands over the woven bedspread, slide my legs open and closed like scissors. The sheets are not twisted around me, nor am I sweaty. There is no sign of a nighttime struggle. Rather, the bed is perfectly neat, as if I had hardly moved. I feel strangely calm. The adrenaline of panic concentrates me, makes my muscles smooth and coordinated, allows me to think clearly. I close my right eye and look straight ahead with my left. The image is clear. I see my host Nancy's collection of mercury glass on the built-in bookshelves that flank the fireplace. I see odd vases, doorknobs, reflecting globes of mirrored, luminous silver glass. I see two ivy topiaries on either side of the mantelpiece. I move my eye left and right and up and down, and it moves where I direct it. I then close my left eye and look with my right. I can see out of that eye, too. Again, I open both together, and all I can see is a great blur. I look back to the mercury glass, and I realize I am seeing two of everything. I shut my eyes again. I feel sleepy, as if a spell had taken hold of me in the night. I can see the sunlight, which pours through the windows, on the inside of my lids. I have the thought that when I open my eyes again, the blurring will be gone. I don't concentrate on clear sight, though. I don't try to wish it into existence. In a strange way, alarming though it is, the clouding feels comfortable. I am tired of trying to understand my life; I am weary. I open my eyes again. I mentally walk around the blur, feel my way through it, as I look from the mantel to the windows and toward the living room. I feel removed from the scene, separated by a membrane of unreality. My experience in Dallas in the nine months since I arrived has been so bizarre, so tortured and incomprehensible, that waking up unable to see seems to make perverse sense. I sit up in bed and swing my legs around to the floor. I stand and realize I feel a bit shaky, so I shut one eye to create a clear image and head for the bathroom. I flick on the light and walk right up to the sink and look in the mirror. I have four eyes, two noses, and two mouths. I shut one eye and look at my face. There are no strange rashes or awful distortions. My complexion is clear, my face relaxed. I look at my left eye. It looks normal, light brown, luminous, rising to a light green around the edge of the iris. I close my left eye and examine my right eye the same way, and it too looks familiar and fine. The waiting room of the outpatient clinic at Parkland Hospital has stackable, upholstered chairs in bright colors. Magazines like Horse and Rider and Popular Mechanics are scattered on tables. I sit down with a copy of the New Yorker that I have brought from home and a yellow legal pad, which I lean against my chest. I cross my legs and set my bag beside me. It occurs to me that with my posture and this pad I am saying, "I am taking notes. Don't try any funny business." I am not at all sure what kind of doctors I'll find in Dallas. A middle-aged farm couple is sitting opposite me. The man is thin, with watery blue eyes, and an attitude in his body of trust, trust for the authority of the doctors who will come out and treat him. His wife's gray meringue of hair does not move, even when she leans over to pick up the magazine that has slipped from her lap. Within a few minutes, I am ushered into an examination room and asked to sit in what looks like a white dentist's chair. The room is clean and brand-new. I settle in with my magazine until I am joined by a young doctor who appears thin, pinched, and very white. He has mousy brown hair. He asks me to read eye charts. He peers into my eyes and asks me to roll them this way and that. He leaves, quickly returns with another doctor, a short woman with curly, shoulder-length hair and spectacles. I want to like her, because she seems competent and serious. She hands me a card, which shows she is a neuroophthalmologist and is board-certified in ophthalmology as well as neurology. I tell her I have double vision, though I can see fine if I look out of only one eye. She sees that when I look to the right, my right eye seems to give up before reaching its farthest point. "Cannot bury sclera into right lateral epicanthic fold," I watch her write on her paper. She asks me if I have any other symptoms. All I can think of is that I have had a stiff neck for a few weeks, something I get when I am tense. "Soft meningeal symptoms," she adds. She fits me with different lenses that measure the extent to which I cannot look to the right. She gives me a shot of an enzyme called edrophonium to see if I am suffering from an immune system disorder called myasthenia gravis, the disease from which Aristotle Onassis suffered that required him to tape up his eyelids with Band-Aids. My belly shakes as the drug passes through me, but it has no effect on the double vision. This, she tells me, means I do not have myasthenia gravis. I'm not sure if I am relieved or not. There is a lot of bustling and measuring, but no one says much to me. After more tests, she writes down "right sixth nerve paresis" and explains that the muscle that pulls my right eye to the outside, away from my nose, is called the right lateral rectus muscle. It is fired by the sixth nerve, a long, narrow filament that travels from the brain stem all the way around the outside of the skull to the eye. There is one on each side, serving each eye. The sixth nerve on my right side, she explains to me, is not firing properly, and it is making my right eye just a tiny bit slower than my left. She does not know why the nerve is misfiring and preventing the two eyes from tracking together, the cause of my double vision. Before I leave, Dr. Zimmerman says she would like me to get a magnetic-resonance-imaging scan, an MRI, to see if there is any abnormality in my brain. The thought of a tumor had occurred to me. For a moment, I brighten. A heaviness lifts at the thought that there might be an explanation for the catastrophes that have befallen me since my arrival in Dallas. Perhaps a brain tumor would explain why my relationship with my boyfriend, Craig, collapsed, or why my job as a television news reporter and producer was falling apart. When the neuroophthalmologist finishes her exam, I walk out of the clinic office holding a card on which is written the date and time of my appointment for an MRI scan. Before I leave the building, I stop at a pharmacy on the first floor and buy a black eye patch, as Dr. Zimmerman has suggested. "Remember to change it from eye to eye," she tells me, "so both will get exercised." I laugh to myself. I will look eccentric, won't I, eye patch on one eye or the other, changed at will, as if it were some bizarre fashion accessory? Two days later, my friend Nancy drives me to the MRI, ice clinking in the smoky green glass of diet soda she holds in her right hand, cigarette burning in her left, gold bracelets falling prettily around her Rolex watch. We are in her BMW sedan, which is as heavy as a tank, and hard to maneuver even without the Pepsi glass and ice cubes. Nancy is a beauty. I met Nancy at a gym in Highland Park. She looked to me like she belonged on Nantucket, and I told her so. It turned out she loved Nantucket, and her garden was full of Nantucket hydrangeas. Now, six months later, she is no longer working out. She is in the middle of a divorce from her husband of twenty years, a man with whom she has two sons. He has left her for one of her friends, a lawyer who works in his office and is herself married to another man. Many of the women I have met in Dallas are embroiled in painful, humiliating relationships. One of them, Tammy, a former Oklahoma beauty queen and Oklahoma U. student, married a hefty, rich lawyer who wears custom-made suits and $1,500 English shoes. Tammy wants a baby, but her husband would rather eat than have sex. Instead, the couple bought a miniature dog named Dunhill that Tammy carries around in her handbag. When Dunhill finds his tiny feet on an Oriental rug, he gets an uncontrollable urge to pee. Tammy is suicidal and taking Prozac. The slag of Dallas is dragging Nancy down, pulling her with it into the mire of emptiness, materialism, puffed-up dreams gone sour. She sees all this, and even articulates it, but she is not strong enough to free herself from it. After Craig and I broke up, she very kindly offered me a room in her house, and I accepted. The medical office with the MRI machine is at the end of a freshly graded road carved out of a remnant of woods in downtown Dallas, just beyond Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse barbecue. We roll up the curving road, past brand-new medical buildings, and park before a one-story office. Nancy throws her cigarette on the ground before we step in, but I am already saturated with cigarette smoke. I wonder momentarily if my eye has gone haywire from a couple of weeks of secondhand smoke. After I check in, I am asked to take off my clothes in a changing room off the main corridor. With whitewashed oak walls and white cotton curtains at the stall doors, it looks like a nice public swimming pool or a health club. Nancy is making dirty jokes about the paper gown I am putting on, and I'm getting punchy. I pad out in a hospital johnny and disposable slippers and walk toward the MRI machine. I am instructed to lie down on a sliding chamber that looks like an enormous outstretched tongue. A quiet, dutiful young man explains that the tongue will be redrawn back into the mouth of the machine, and I will hear a loud thumping. I am not to move, scratch my nose, wiggle, or stretch, or I'll blur the $1,000 picture that is being taken. I can't believe how lucky I am that my new health insurance became effective the very day my eye got blurry. It isn't so bad inside the box. I do not feel claustrophobic. I keep myself distracted and calm by thinking of gardens I have loved and visited in person and in my mind. When I get out, Nancy smiles at me. I look toward the man who is reading the screens. I can tell from his expression that something is wrong. "You didn't see any extraordinarily huge tumors did you?" I ask. I realize I have phrased my question in such a way as to give him an out. "We're not allowed to interpret the pictures," the man says. I look at his name tag and see he is a radiologist in training. "But, no," he adds, "I didn't see any extraordinarily large tumors." "Come on," says Nancy, diet drink raised high, right hand digging into her large Louis Vuitton bag. "What you need is a cigarette. The doctors have it all wrong about cigarettes. Cigarettes make you healthy." I laugh, in spite of myself. I have fallen so deeply into the absurd, I take one and light up. Until Dr. Zimmerman looks at the scan and calls me back, I have a window of peace, a temporary reprieve. For a few more hours at least, I remain free of the news that may turn my life upside down. There is nothing I can do to avert my fate. I think about the many times I have felt caught between the ongoing present and the future, measuring the hours or minutes before an exam or a speech, a track meet or a swim race, filling them with mental games, preparations. But now, there is nothing to do, nothing to prepare for. Excerpted from Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate: A Spiritual Journey by Emily Benedek All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
1 Blindedp. 3
2 What Is a Jew?p. 23
3 Exilep. 42
4 Learning to Seep. 72
5 First Stepsp. 121
6 The True Lives of Storiesp. 160
7 Homep. 178
8 Desirep. 233
9 Congregation B'nai Jeshurunp. 239
10 If Not Now, When?p. 282
11 Letters from Israelp. 295
12 What Next?p. 314
Notesp. 331
Acknowledgmentsp. 334